Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thoughts on Thanksgiving Day 2013


Happy Thanksgiving Day to anyone who stops by to read what I've written today.

For those readers outside the USA, Thanksgiving Day is an American holiday commemorating a meal given by the Pilgrims publicly giving Thanks to God for finding their way to North America, founding their colony and being able to have a bountiful harvest when it looked like their might be no food for the Winter.

Traditionally, it's a time for people to return home, or gather with friends, and celebrate.

This year several of my Facebook friends have taken the challenge to post something they are thankful for each day this month until we reach today. For the two who have faithfully posted ever day I applaud you!

Since I did not take the challenge, this blog entry will have to suffice in some way.

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I have to be thankful for is not being caught up in the traffic snarl, which puts a Bay Area's weekday commute to shame. No matter whether it's a trip to the Central Valley, or clear across the country, it seems like you hear about crazy transportation issues.

This year people dodged the weather bullet because the great snow storm, which covered most of the US, was fairly predictable, and so travelers could choose to leave earlier to ensure getting to the dinner table on time.

How people do this year after year, amazes me; especially when many of them return home less than a week later, only to do it all over again less than a month later for Christmas and New Years Day.

Generally, the farthest my family has ever had to travel was across town, so San Pablo Ave was the biggest challenge.

I'm thankful for warmth. Some of you may be confused by that since it was in the mid-40s this morning. Considering it is likely to be the coldest Thanksgiving Day on record in Washington DC, that low of 46F here in Albany is downright balmy, and is 16F higher than what's predicted as the high in many cities along the East Coast, let alone Alamosa, CO where people woke up to 1F.

Going hand in hand with that, I'm thankful that I can chose to have as few, or as many, blankets on my bed inside a house, as opposed to those who live on the streets, either by choice or circumstances beyond their control, and don't have a single blanket to huddle up with.

I'm thankful for being able to walk to a local super market and select and buy from a veritable cornucopia of food any day of the week, let alone Thanksgiving Day. In other parts of the globe having a meal larger than a cup of rice is a luxury. Sometimes even that single cup seems like a luxury to them.

I'm thankful that I have the willpower not to already be in line at Best Buy or Fry's so I can save on a laptop or big screen television.

Please don't take that as a slight against anybody who is (there were several tents set up at Emeryville's Best Buy as of yesterday). I just find it shocking that people will basically put their lives on hold for some items.

A few years ago, I drove out to Concord Fry's to stand in one of those lines. At 2am it snaked throughout the parking lot, though it hadn't yet wrapped around the building quite yet. Once the doors opened at 5am, it was an orderly rush inside to grab things off the shelf and escape moderately unharmed.

With my cart full, I went in search for the end of the line. This line put the lines at Disneyland to shame. Three hours later I finally got to the checkout register. That's three hours in line, not three hours from when I got there!

The advantage of the time wait was that people, tired of waiting in the long line, abandoned sale items along the way, much like the Pioneers of the American West abandoned household items because they had to lighten their wagons. Items I had given up hope getting, magically appeared before my eyes.

I'm thankful I don't have a job that's requiring me to work on Black Friday, Cyber Monday and especially on Thanksgiving Day.

I'm not going to villainize companies for being open on Thanksgiving, though I wish all but the most necessary occupations had the day off.

When I was young, not nearly as many places were open on this special day, and those that were, were staffed by workers who volunteered to work that day; and they were usually highly rewarded for that volunteerism.

Sad as it is to say, I'm pretty certain many of the larger companies aren't giving their staff the option of staying home with their families, and the only reason they're paying holiday pay is because they're required to by the federal government.

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I could go on. But, this is getting long, and I've got stuff to prep for dinner; which I hope to have cooked before the Oakland Raiders take on the Dallas Cowboys for that other annual tradition…Turkey Day football!

Thursday, November 14, 2013

And the Oscar goes to… (2013 edition)

movie_and_popcornOK, so I'm probably a wee bit late on this one.

Earlier this Summer It dawned on me that pretty much all the Best Picture nominees have been released on DVD by then.

Mind you, my comments below are based on personal preferences, and don't take into account popularity at the box office, which I'd bet fudges the award in Hollywood sometimes.

Additionally, it should be stated that I'm watching these as DVDs become available through the Alameda County Library system, and so the mini-reviews were written over several months, not immediately, back to back.

So without further ado here are my thoughts on this year's Best Picture Nominations for the 2013 Academy Awards presentation.

amour_xlgAMOURAmour takes us through the struggles an elderly couple faces when one experiences some debilitating disorders.

Foreign films are always at a disadvantage when it comes to the Best Picture nomination. In fact, only nine foreign films have been nominated in the 85 years of the Academy Awards.

The film was hard to watch at times because it truthfully captured what happens when an elderly person is stricken with a severe ailment, and they spiral towards the inevitable outcome.

Unfortunately, the movie jumps forward at times with no explanation, and the ending leaves some unanswered questions.

It's really a shame Emmanuelle Riva lost the Best Actress Award to Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook). Her performance, despite having little dialog beyond Stroke-induced grunts and stuttering, is what made this film.

Argo-Movie-PosterARGOArgo depicts the intricately planned rescue of six American embassy personnel, who had got out prior to the 1979 embassy takeover in Tehran, Iran.

Most Americans are probably aware of the Iranian Hostage Crisis. Less are perhaps aware of the Canadian government helping six people to escape. I have to admit, I'd never knew the involvement of the American government until I saw this film.

It has to be said that Ben Affleck is an amazing actor, and has now become an amazing director as well. Unfortunately, it can't be said that his portrayal of CIA operative Tony Mendez was amongst his best.

There seems to be no enthusiasm in his delivery, and it pretty much stays the same throughout the film.

beasts-of-the-southern-wild-movie-posterBEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILDBeasts of the Southern Wild, follows young child as she grows up in the fictional Louisiana delta island nicknamed  "The Bathtub."

To be honest, I'm torn on this film. The story and plot kept me watching.

However, at times it was really hard to watch due to about 90% of the film being shot handheld, without the use of a steady-cam. I realize he probably did that to give it a documentary look. But, it became annoying at times.

One the positive side, the acting was amazing when you consider the two lead characters Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and Wink (Dwight Henry) were played by people who had never acted before. In fact, most of the supporting cast was made up of locals from Terrebonne Parish.

django-unchained-final-american-movie-posterDJANGO UNCHAINED Django Unchained, was released to much publicity last Winter. Much of it was pretty abysmal. Some called it blatant racism. Director Spike Lee, when asked what he thought of the film, said "…It's disrespectful to my ancestors…" and would not be seeing it.

Heated racist attitudes aside, I was disappointed when I finally got to see it. It was way too long and uneven.

It started out as an homage to the Spaghetti Western film genre. But, there were comedy sketches thrown in that were more fitting for a Mel Brooks flick, and they interfered with a constant flow of action.

The sound track was all over the place. I'm still trying to figure how someone thought Jim Croce's I got a name fit.

Les-Miserables-2012-Movie-PosterLES MISÉRABLES Set against the backdrop of the French Revolution, Les Misérables chronicles the cat and mouse game between Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) and Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe).

Musicals are always a hard fit when it comes to the Oscars, especially when talking about Best Picture of the Year.

They took an interesting gamble with this rendition of Les Misérables, as there is NO dialog throughout the entire film. Or more precisely, there is is no spoken dialog. Every line spoken by every character is sung.

The film is gorgeous, especially with the mesmerizing opening act as French prisoners are dragging a huge Man O' War into dry dock.

Unfortunately, it became rather tiresome after awhile, as I awaited the plot to run its course. Not even the stellar performances of Jackman, Crowe, nor Anne Hathaway (Fantine), made me excited.

Perhaps I might have felt different had I seen this on the big screen.

Life_Of_Pi_movie_posterLIFE OF PI Life of Pi, takes us along on the journey of a young Indian boy, who is shipwrecked in the Pacific Ocean, with a Bengal Tiger as his only company.

Absolutely stunning. Critics poured lots of praise on this film, and it was justified.

It's a one person cast, with a handful supporting actors thrown into the beginning and end to help guide us along. What makes this even more amazing is that this was Suraj Sharma's film debut. Usually actors have other actors to interact with. Sharma had sock puppets and little black dots stuck on things…nothing more.

Virtually all of this film was shot on one of the World's largest sound stages, using special effects married to footage in a computer. I was shocked to find out that certain scenes that looked so natural had actually came out of a computer.

Lincoln-posterLINCOLN Lincoln deals with the relatively short three month time period between the 1864 Presidential Election and the passage of the 13th Amendment.

Being a history buff, I wasn't turned off by this being a heavily dialog-driven film. The script revolved around the relationships between several Washington power brokers, and carried that off very well. Without this give-and-take, it would have been a really boring film.

Daniel Day-Lewis' portrayal of Lincoln was a career performance. His vocalization had a subtle softness to it not present in many of his other rolls. That, coupled with a wonderful makeup job, completed the package.  

silver-linings-playbook-movie-posterSILVER LININGS PLAYBOOKPat (Bradley Cooper) is a husband who has recently been released to home stay after being hospitalized in a mental facility due to the violent breakup of  his marriage.

When friends try and fix him up with Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), sparks fly, but he still intends to get back together with his ex.

First the positive. The acting is AMAZING! Both Cooper and Lawrence did great jobs at portraying people on the edge where very little pushes them over.

But, with that said, it was a very hard movie to watch during lots of it. Mental illness is not something to be joked about, and so the movie treated, many scenes very real, with lots of yelling, shouting and even some violence.

After the first half of the movie I almost turned the DVD off though ended up watching the whole thing to see where it would go.

Fortunately, it never devolved the campiness that it might have.

zero_dark_thirty_movie_posterZERO DARK THIRTY Zero Dark Thirty takes us inside the super secret efforts to find Osama Bin Laden, and the eventual raid on his secret compound.

Film creators chose to take risks by opening the movie with a black screen with a muffled audio track full of actual sounds from the 9/11 attacks. This was followed by several minutes of brutal torture scenes at the hands of CIA personnel.

To be honest, I cringed at this portrayal. After all, we're supposed to be the good guys, right?

However, once this scene passed, the film settled down to an intense "who dun it" path as CIA operatives tried finding someone close to Bin Laden, only to find the head man himself.

The final 40 minutes recreated the actual raid, with lots of night footage, which could have been mistaken for actual military footage. This, coupled with a haunting soundtrack, had me sitting on the edge of my seat during to the very end.

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So what would have been my choice for Best Picture?

The Life of Pi

The acting was superb, especially when you consider 95% of it was done against a green screen, with the actor not knowing what was in front of him.